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Bureaucrats Try Herding Cats

Demanding a license to let cats live on your lawn?

By Will Offensicht  |  January 15, 2009

Our government employees famously insist on helping us whether we need it or not.  Logically, sooner or later, there must come a time when all real problems are receiving government attention leaving only imaginary problems for bureaucrats to sink their teeth into.

In the city of Key West, it would appear that things have reached this point: city residents seem to have so few problems that really need government assistance that area bureaucrats must look into the theater of the absurd for clients.

USA Today reports on how our government seeks to assist the cats which live on the grounds of Ernest Hemingway's former home in Key West:

The cats have been a popular tourist attraction in quirky Key West since the museum opened in 1964. But until September, their future was unclear. The museum was embroiled in legal wranglings with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which wanted to remove them to protect them.

Finally, an outside veterinarian came up with a compromise: Install a special fence around the 1-acre property that will keep the cats enclosed yet not mar the historic landmark.

Here we have a private museum whose grounds are inhabited by more than 50 cats which are greatly appreciated by the museum's customers.

That turns out to be the problem.  Because museum customers look at the cats and like having them around, the USDA says that the museum is an exhibitor of cats and must obtain an official USDA Animal Welfare License.  The museum says that the cats don't perform and aren't caged so they can't be exhibits.

The museum's lawyer claims that although people have liked looking at the cats since 1964, visitors pay to see Hemingway's home and office, not the cats.  The museum says that the USDA is comparing the museum to a circus or a zoo just because there are cats on the premises.

The legal dispute began in 2003 when the Florida Keys Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals raised concerns about the cats' welfare with the federal government.  The Guardian reported that a cat expert was brought in to assess the animals' welfare as part of settling the lawsuit; he eventually suggested putting a fence around the property.

Let's think about this for a moment.  The cats are such an attraction that the museum puts pictures of them on their web site and sells pictures of the cats in the gift shop even though they don't perform and aren't kept in cages.  The museum provides veterinary care for the cats and, given their value as a drawing card, management would have to be utter idiots to let anything happen to them.

Anybody who's tried to get a cat to perform knows that it's extremely difficult.  The cats aren't really exhibits and they get better care than most cats.  These cats and their ancestors have lived in peace for half a century without complaint; but no, the feds just have to get involved.

The manifest health and happiness of the furry beasts counts not at all; instead, civil servants claim that without an animal license for the museum, the cats would have to be trapped and removed from the premises for their own protection.  Where will they go?  What will happen to them?  Will they be better off?

It's hard to imagine how they could be better off anywhere else than as pampered residents of a popular museum in the tropical paradise of Key West.  Their actual welfare is beside the point, of course, what the bureaucracy cares about is whether they're licensed.

The museum could ignore the cats and claim they're feral.  They'd have to discontinue feeding the cats and stop caring for them, but then they'd be wild animals which happen to hang around where they can be seen and no license would be needed.  The cats would end up worse off because some of them would starve to death, but the bureaucracy would be satisfied, which is, after all, the main thing.

Consider the cost of this five-year lawsuit between the museum and the Federal Government.  We've commented on the tendency of a bureaucracy to want to extend its reach regardless of the merits of their case.  Any bureaucracy that issues licenses for anything always wants to force more and more people and organizations to have to get its licenses - how else can they grow?

In the end, the USDA forced the museum to build an unneeded fence around the property to protect the cats but was unable to persuade the museum to buy an animal license.  There was no evidence of any danger to the cats as far back as 1964, but putting up a fence was cheaper than fighting with bureaucrats who had no need to show that their activities benefited anyone other than themselves.

One worries about the possibility of the next generation of bureaucrats renewing the fight, though.  Remember, the USDA forced the museum to build a fence - thus, in effect, putting the previously free-roaming cats in a cage.  And, of course, visitors are still looking at them.  How can they be argued as being anything other than "on display"?

Maybe they should make the visitors wear blindfolds on the way in, so they can't actually see the cats until they're inside?  Goodness knows the bureaucrats seem to be blind as bats, at least where common sense is concerned.